With religion an increasingly prominent element in major news stories, informing Americans about religion’s impact in the world has become a crucial part of news coverage.
Recent top religion stories have included Pope Benedict XVI’s university address on religion and violence and the fall of evangelical leader Ted Haggard.
As the Religion Newswriters Association meets today through Saturday at the Menger Hotel for its annual convention, its 560 members face an environment in which many religious leaders are suspicious of journalists’ attitude toward faith; many journalists handle religion stories with inadequate knowledge; and declining advertising revenues have killed “faith and values” sections in newspapers including the Dallas Morning News and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Still, Debra Mason, the association’s executive director, said the secular media generally cover religion much better than in the past.
“More journalists understand the incredible diversity of faith and the need to adequately research the topic; editors are better at understanding that religion touches many of the day’s top news events,” she said.
But many newspapers, squeezed hard economically, devote fewer resources to complex topics like religion.
Some papers have offset the demise of popular religion sections by mainstreaming religion news throughout the newspaper.
Chris Quinn, religion and philanthropy reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said he doesn’t miss the religion section.
“Why should we ‘ghettoize’ religion news in a Saturday section? The trick for religion writers is to make others in the newsroom understand the importance of religion and why it should be on Page One,” Quinn said.
But he contends that the public largely misunderstands the secular media’s watchdog role in covering institutions, including religious ones.
“I think many would like us to be cheerleaders for them. They’re used to the religious media writing about them. Religious media are less likely to ask religious leaders questions about things that might not present them in a favorable light.”
But Kelly McBride, a former religion writer in Spokane, Wash., and now ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, a journalism training center in St. Petersburg, Fla., believes that the average person reading a daily newspaper “is likely to judge religion reporting as credible if he sees his belief system authentically represented.”
“But he’s likely to dismiss it if he sees something he knows to be erroneous,” she added.
The RNA’s Mason said that “good religion writers must be good journalists, committed to the core values of the profession of journalism: telling the truth, being fair and accurate.”
The Rev. Robert Emmitt of San Antonio’s Community Bible Church said many evangelicals feel largely ignored by secular media unless there is a scandal or a prominent figure, such as Billy Graham, makes news.
Sarwat Husain, a San Antonio Muslim leader, said coverage of the Muslim community has vastly improved since 9-11.
“We don’t feel threatened anymore when reporters call us,” she said. “But a small percentage of journalists still follow their own agenda and misguide people.”
Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va., said that whether the criticism is fair or not, the journalism profession has an ethical obligation to prepare all journalists “to cover stories with religion angles in depth, context and richness.”
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